Daughter of the Burning City (Amanda Foody)

4 stars

“Reality is in the eye of the beholder…

Even among the many unusual members of the travelling circus that has always been her home sixteen-yea-old Sorina stands apart as the only illusion-worker born in hundreds of years.

This rare talent allows her to create illusions that others can see, feel and touch, with personalities all of their own. Her creations are her family, and together they make up the cast of the Festival’s Freak Show.

But no matter how lifelike they may seem, her illusions are still just that—illusions, and not truly real.

Or so she always believed…until one of them is murdered.

Now she must unravel the horrifying truth before all her loved ones disappear.”

Anyone who has been following me for a while will know that ‘Daughter of the Burning City’ is one of my most anticipated books of the second half of 2017. So, when I got the chance to read an advanced reader copy, courtesy of HQ and Harper Collins, I was very very excited.

Sorina is an illusionist, a rare type of jynxworker who can wish creatures of her imagination into physical form. The adoptive daughter of the Proprietor of the magical travelling Festival of Gomorrah, Sorina runs an act alongside the ‘freakish’ creations of her mind. As much as her creations are somewhat of a found family for her, she has never truly believed that they are real. However, her understanding of just what these creatures are is sorely tested when one of them is murdered, sending ripples through her entire adopted family.

Into this uncertain world steps Luca, a gossip broker and jynxworker whose gift protects him from physical death. Initially uninterested in Sorina’s plight, something changes in him and he offers his services to help Sorina find the killer of her creations. Blunt, clever and a little eccentric, Luca is viewed with mistrust by several people close to Sorina due to his UpMountain Origins and his avoidance of sexual interactions. But as time passes and Sorina and Luca grow closer, she realises that she can see little of the young man that other people seem to be seeing.

The world of ‘DOTBC’ is split into two key areas. The ‘UpMountain’ and ‘DownMountain’ regions, which refers to their geographical proximity to a spine of mountains which splits the continent. The countries North, ‘up’, of the Mountains are united by worship of a hardline warrior God, who believes in expansionism and the ‘eradication of sin’. The Festival of Gomorrah, with its drinking and song, revelry and prostitution, is far from the UpMountain ideals, with the festival allowed harbour infrequently and under strict regulation. The UpMountain religion considers jynxworkers to be creatures of demon magic, calling for their eradication throughout the continent. Perhaps most critically for Sorina, who was born without eyes, the UpMountain religion also considers physical deformities to be a sign of internal sin, making the world a thoroughly unwelcoming place for her.

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Sorina, our protagonist, is not a perfect person and I think that’s honestly why I enjoyed reading from her perspective so much. She’s impulsive yet deeply unsure of herself and struggles with anxiety throughout the novel. She sees herself as someone who it is impossible to love, creating these illusions around her almost like a found family. She spends much of the novel thinking that they only care for her because she made them that way, undermining herself but also the independence and agency of her ‘creatures’.

I’d argue that her illusions are some of the most human characters in the book. They have foibles and flaws but they care for each other in a deep heartfelt way. Their abilities and appearances are really fascinating and illustrated by little drawings throughout the story. There was also something deeply philosophical about the question of their existence, were they their own entities or just part of Sorina’s mind?

I think one of the parts of the book that I have the most thoughts about is the bisexual and demisexual representation. Our protagonist, Sorina, shows attraction to more than one gender in the novel and vocally opposes a character who makes the assumption she is only attracted to men. Luca is also canonically shown to be on the ace spectrum, saying that he only experiences attraction to those he already ‘cares’ about. It’s not explicit in book as to whether that attraction is romantic, sexual or more queerplatonic, though he and Sorina do kiss on page. One thing that I really liked about how Luca’s identity is dealt with is that the protagonist Sorina does something which is pretty unforgiveable, she kisses him impulsively, without consent, without appreciating anything about what other characters have said about his reduced attraction, and he backs off, he doesn’t talk to her and he is obviously very unhappy with what she did. Luca isn’t ‘cured’ by the kiss of an allosexual character, it obviously puts him in very real turmoil and when he does talk to Sorina again it is with boundaries and with the understanding that although he has some kind of attraction to her, it may never be the same kind of attraction that she feels. A kiss without consent is shown to be awkward, cold and just really grim, whilst the kiss with consent between the two same characters chapters later is warm and requited. It definitely flips the idea that a lot of media has where it’s somehow ‘sexy’ to kiss someone without asking them.

There is one reveal towards the end of the book that left me a little confused and uncertain. I don’t want to go into it in depth here as it’s a major spoiler, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about it considering the rest of the book had been so hot on consent. It’s not anything that you’re thinking it might be, I wouldn’t have supported a book with rape or dubious consent or anything like that in it. It’s more…about agency and independence. There’s a lot in this book about consent and agency and I suppose how you feel about those issues in book will have a lot to do with how to feel about the ending. I, personally, was a bit disappointed but I know that other reviewers have felt differently.

Overall, this was a really enjoyable read. I agree with some other readers that the pacing was a little off and sometimes left me wondering how long had passed between scenes, but it didn’t bother me too much, it was only something I thought about when looking over the book retrospectively. It’s a really interesting world, with engaging characters and a lot of avenues that I’d love to explore in more detail. As I was watching the pages tick down I found myself really sad that the book would soon be over and I would be leaving the world behind me. If Foody decides to write anymore stories in this world then they will honestly be an autobuy for me.

So, if you enjoy circus stories with dark settings and liberal dashings of the occult, I definitely recommend picking this book up!

Many thanks to Harper Collins and HQ books for a copy in return for an honest review.

‘Daughter of the Burning City’ is out in the UK as an e-book on the 25th of July, 2017, a paperback copy will be following on September 7th.

Amazon | Book Depository | Waterstones

If any of you are looking for a playlist to listen to when reading, this is the playlist I was listening to whilst reading.

The Upside of Unrequited (Becky Albertalli)

5 Stars

“Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love-she’s lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can’t stomach the idea of rejection. So she’s careful. Fat girls always have to be careful.

Then a cute new girl enters Cassie’s orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly’s cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly’s totally not dying of loneliness-except for the part where she is. Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny, flirtatious, and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she’ll get her first kiss and she’ll get her twin back.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s coworker, Reid. He’s an awkward Tolkien superfan, and there’s absolutely no way Molly could fall for him. Right?”

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction, often preferring a heady dose of magic to reality. However, there are a handful of contemporary fiction writers that are autobuy for me, and Mrs Albertalli is just one of those writers. I picked up ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ last year at YALC and read the entire book in one sitting, falling in love with just how well Albertalli writes youth, especially those who live their teenage life towards the fringes, not popular but not exactly friendless either.

Her latest protagonist, Molly, falls into a similar segment of society. She’s well liked, has a happy home life, but is plagued with clinical anxiety and shyness which keeps her dreaming rather than acting upon any of her crushes. In Molly’s mind it is safer to pine from afar than risk the bitter sting of rejection. But watching her skinny twin, Cassie, fall in love, Molly begins to feel that she is being left behind, and begins to wonder whether she is the only barrier between herself and such happiness.

‘I’ve had crushes on twenty-six people, twenty-five of whom are not Lin-Manuel Miranda’

(I feel you, Molly)

This book was ridiculously cute and ridiculously relatable. I’m twenty three and I still feel the same nervous jitters when I come across someone I like and begin to wonder whether they could like me too. I think it will mean a lot to some teenagers readers to see a fat girl in a contemporary romance, to reassure young readers of all genders that being fat doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful or deserving of love.

‘There’s this awfulness that comes when a guy thinks you like him. It’s as if he’s fully clothed and you’re naked in front of him. It’s like your heart suddenly lives outside your body, and whenever he wants, he can reach out and squeeze it. Unless he happens to like you back.’

Without spoilers, the flirtation between Molly and her love interests was adorable. Hipster Will and Nerd Reid are definitely guys that I have met and dated. I’d also like to thank Albertalli for inserting the ??? into attraction. Sometimes those we come to love have things about them that are odd or a little off-putting at first but you come to accept as you grow to know them. It’s not something that is discussed often in romance, especially not teen romance!

I’d also like to put it out there that any scene about Molly’s mothers or their impending wedding made me tear right up. The world is a cold and cruel place to the LGBTQA community right now and this book was filled with the warmth and comfort that I have been craving. It also made me so happy to see bi women in relationships with women still being referred to as bi. It’s all too easy for authors to erase a character’s bi identity in a relationship and I felt all fuzzy to see that not happening here.

So, my loves: relatable non-cookie-cutter lead, a distinct lack of instalove, diversity, accurate depictions of anxiety, nerdom, oreos and arts and craft.

Dislikes? I don’t know what you expected me to put here because I loved it all.

‘The Upside of Unrequited’ is out on both sides of the Atlantic on the 11th of April (not long now!) and I seriously recommend you all go and pick it up (and ‘Simon’ if you haven’t already read it!).

Many thanks to Penguin Random House for a copy in return for an honest review. All quotations were drawn from an advanced review copy and may be subject to change in the final novel.

A Quiet Kind of Thunder (Sara Barnard)

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“Steffi doesn’t talk, but she has so much to say. Rhys can’t hear, but he can listen. Their love isn’t a lightning strike, it’s the rumbling roll of thunder. 

Steffi has been a selective mute for most of her life – she’s been silent for so long that she feels completely invisible. But Rhys, the new boy at school, sees her. He’s deaf, and her knowledge of basic sign language means that she’s assigned to look after him. To Rhys it doesn’t matter that Steffi doesn’t talk and, as they find ways to communicate, Steffi finds that she does have a voice, and that she’s falling in love with the one person who makes her feel brave enough to use it.”

4 stars

I was going to start this review by yelling about how cute this book was. But I just didn’t think that did it justice. Yes, this story is really really cute and I enjoyed it a lot, but it’s also really important. Our protagonist, Steffi, is selectively mute and struggles with anxiety that underpins every single one of her daily interactions. Our love interest, Rhys, is biracial and was born deaf. Steffi, having learnt some BSL to help her communicate when unable to talk, is roped in by her school to help new boy Rhys settle in and they end up finding that the other is the person they feel they’ve always been looking for.

This idea could have ended up really twee, but instead Barnard was honest about some of the difficulties of Steffi and Rhys’ friendship and relationship. There is no awkward feeling that Steffi or Rhys are ‘saved’ by the others existence, or that they couldn’t live their lives without the other, they just really enjoy being together. Indeed, there are a number of believable miscommunications between them fuelled by Steffi’s low self esteem and the fact that Rhys isn’t automatically the perfect human being just because he’s a disabled main character. Both seem beautifully and realistically human  and the relationship between them was so engaging I ended up sitting down and reading the book in one go.

But the relationship isn’t the only talking point of the book, in fact, I’d say it was only one of the plot points in a book that dealt with emotional discussions of grief, therapy and life long female friendship. Steffi is a character that will probably feel instantly recognizable to anyone with anxiety, but even to those who are less familiar, her friendship with her best friend and the way it morphs, changes and strengthens over time is so important. Changing schools, relationships, different life courses all can strain friendships, making those in them fear they may become distant from those that have been part of their lives for as long as they can remember. It was really lovely to see a female friendship meet those challenges and grow from it, not falter in the face of adversity.

For me, the thing that knocked it down a star was the last fifty pages or so. Without giving spoilers, Steffi comes to a realization in the last page that, as someone with anxiety, I feel maybe should have had a little more time spent upon.  I just don’t feel that the decision she made had enough time to come to fruition in the little time spent on it. It felt like a drastic turn around on her thinking in the rest of the book. Whilst her epiphany was a healthy one, it’s very difficult for someone with their anxieties so ingrained to come to that thought process so quickly. The thinking that goes into something like that, something which fights against every iota of your insecurities, feels like torture and I wish that had been given a little more page space.

Overall, this was a great book. Sweet, sad and truthful, it managed to share the beauty of a burgeoning relationship without every shying away from the common, and more specific, pitfalls of the main characters love.

Thank you to Pan Macmillan for a copy in return for an honest review.